The debate over the importance of pre-season continues, including a league table from last season for stats fans. Plus travelling to watch your team and Blackpool...
As you may have noticed it's the summer, which means that Johnny and Al are interested to see how different football and cricket punditry differ. Football has a lot to learn...
It may have been a tad overstated how united 'the neutrals' are in their hope that Liverpool win the title this year, but the current league leaders are not without their non-partisan cheerleaders. Certainly, anyone who wants to see the Premier League status quo disrupted will be willing Everton to recover fourth place by the end of play on May 11. But amidst all the admiration being poured the way of Merseyside at the moment, there is surely a small cartel who will be desperately hoping that both teams fail in their missions: the other top-flight managers. Roberto Martinez and Brendan Rodgers, by imposing upon their clubs an almost implausible level of upward mobility, are showing many of their peers up as phonies.
The success of both managers over the course of this season has been a victory for pure, old-fashioned coaching amidst a landscape where mass-recruitment is too often looked at as the default route to improvement - perhaps even the only route. Neither of the Merseyside clubs have spent money commensurate with their current league positions: Liverpool's summer business was largely characterised by missing out on their more illustrious targets, while Everton's only permanent signing of import has been James McCarthy.
Unable to simply throw cash at their problems, Merseyside's forward-thinking managers have instead concentrated on working with the tools they've already got. Jordan Henderson has been transformed from a loping and unwanted midfielder to a striding, assertive presence whose performances have grown with the occasion. Martin Skrtel, regarded by Rodgers with similar distrust last season, is now the club's dominant centre-half. Raheem Sterling and Jon Flanagan are both youngsters who, having apparently stagnated, have spent the past six months advancing at the rate of a hot rod manned by Vin Diesel.
Across Stanley Park, Seamus Coleman has gone from peripheral figure to one of the division's most thrillingly buccaneering full-backs, Gareth Barry has made mincemeat of his ever-dwindling band of critics and Steven Naismith is no longer a goal-repellent figure of fun but a predatory and sophisticated deep-lying forward. At the back, Sylvain Distin has undergone a sweltering Indian summer and John Stones has been plucked from the academy and plunged into a high-class Premier League outfit, his performances mirroring the manager's faith. Likewise Ross Barkley, whose midfield maraudings have prompted the broadsheets to draw comparisons, however premature, to both Gascoigne and Maradona.
One wonders what the league table might look like if such an approach was taken towards, say, Joleon Lescott or Demba Ba last summer. Instead, the pair spent their pre-seasons undergoing an abrupt sidelining in favour of a newly recruited, fully trusted and handsomely remunerated lieutenant of the incoming manager.
And it's not just an obvious aptitude for the day-to-day bibs-and-cones work that Martinez and Rodgers share, but also an outlook of seemingly indefatigable optimism. It can often come across as fairly trite and more than a little quixotic, these beamingly upbeat interviews week on week, regardless of the result, but the effect it's had on their respective squads is irrefutable. While managers like Arsene Wenger (and, albeit in a different context, Jose Mourinho) seem to specialise in bleakening their club's ambitions by pointing forlornly at their rivals' deeper pockets, Rodgers and Martinez have not provided their players with any excuses for failure and as a result have garnered gleeful overachievement rather than meek underperformance.
It is well-documented that Martinez swanned into his interview with Bill Kenwright and greeted his boss-in-waiting with the rather rash promise of Champions League football, and Rodgers' often hackneyed motivation-speak has spawned much mockery. But such buoyancy has surely now been vindicated. These are men whose glasses are half-full even when they've been drained of their final drop, and their almost absurdly relentless positivity has shown own up Wenger's habitual complaining about so-called 'financial doping' for what it is: pre-emptive defeatism. Mourinho's 'little horse' act has been similarly exposed as a cheap self-preservation tactic.
Which isn't, of course, to say there's no truth to such protests - any analysis of wage bills and league position will show you that there's plenty - but just that the balance sheet does not have to signify a club's be-all and end-all. And that treating it as such can simply become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In a footballing climate where transfer business often seems the only genre of news, and players can be written off with much of their careers still ahead of them, it is refreshing to see this pair taking to the training field and shattering these glass ceilings that received wisdom tells us are so indestructible. And with the likes of Stones, Flanagan, Barkley, Henderson, Sterling and Daniel Sturridge at the heart of both projects, it may not be long before the appreciation towards the coaches' fine work extends some distance beyond Merseyside.
Alex Hess - follow him on Twitter.